Peterborough folklore seminar

This evening I led a seminar at Christ the Servant King church in Hampton on the folklore of Peterborough, a region somewhat neglected by folklorists that lies between East Anglia and the English Midlands, which is the subject of my most recent book. The evening yielded some fascinating snippets of more recent local lore and customs which were new to me. For example, all Peterborough natives are expected to learn the so-called ‘Len Boone Shuffle’ or ‘B&D Shuffle’ to dance along to Boone’s 1978 song ‘Love won’t be denied’, which is played at all discos in the city. The custom is unknown outside Peterborough, and it was explained to me that it arose because the song is a long one which the DJ could put on while he took a toilet break. I was also told that the Mayor’s sausage supper for the inauguration of Bridge Fair, which evolved from ancient customs, remains a somewhat drunken affair and now includes Molly Dancing. I also learnt some legends from Peterborough’s immigrant communities, such as a story of a feud between the Italian and Polish communities in the 1950s that led to the Poles eating all of the Italians’ cats.

People have reported seeing the spectral landing lights of aircraft on the disused Netherton Airfield near Bretton, while another participant reported that she was warned as a child that ‘death lights’ on the fens between Eye and Whittlesey would lead people astray and to their deaths, as well as being told tales of Black Shuck. Distinctive Christmas traditions have grown up, such as a fire engine with Father Christmas riding on the back that travels around the villages between Yaxley and Eye on Christmas Eve. The strangest tradition I heard was a custom unique to the Fen Park estate on the east side of the city, where shortly before Bonfire Night the young men of Fen View, a narrow street leading down to the River Nene, burn other people’s furniture; they deliberately choose the location as it is too narrow for the Fire Brigade to access. This practice has now been going on for two generations, and can probably be situated within the broader traditions of disorder and misrule surrounding Bonfire Night.

I was told a variant version of the legend of St Wulfade and St Rufinus that was recounted to schoolchildren in Dogsthorpe. In the original version of the tale, King Wulfhere of Mercia is led astray by his pagan steward Werbode, but in the twentieth-century Dogsthorpe version it is pagan female witches who corrupt Wulfhere and lead him from the path of the Christian faith. This version of the story was somehow connected to a belief that there had once been witches in Peterborough Cathedral. I was also told of a cupboard located in the Knights’ Tower of Peterborough Cathedral in which an order of druids kept a ram’s head and a peculiar version of the National Anthem, and where they worshipped facing north (according to tradition, the devil’s quarter). My informant claimed to have seen these items as a child; she was warned not to open the cupboard and that strange things would happen if she did. Another informant recounted a story about a Roman temple that is supposed to lie under Peterborough Cathedral. All in all it was a fascinating evening and, as I had hoped, I learnt more from my audience than they did from me.

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